A Time for Stringencies

Chumros, or efforts to go beyond the letter of Jewish religious law’s requirements, have gotten a bad name over the years.  And it is true, some stringencies can be unwise, even counterproductive.  Some are even silly.

I recall a letter to the editor of a now-defunct Jewish magazine whose writer was deeply upset that an advertisement for a dairy product in an earlier issue had run face-to-face with one for a meat product.  Many readers, I’m sure, like me, first thought it was meant as a joke.  But it wasn’t Purim time and it didn’t carry any indication of wryness or satire.  The writer was serious, and, of course, deeply misguided.

But when a stringency is adopted, either by a community or an individual, for a good reason, it should not be resented or mocked.  Sometimes a person may feel a need to draw a broader circle than the next guy’s around something prohibited; sometimes a particular  era or community will require the adoption of special stringencies.  Generally, chumros present themselves in realms like kashrus or the Sabbath, in the form of refraining from eating or doing even something technically permitted.  Other stringencies, though, consist of adopting as one’s norm the example of a great person.

Among the greatest Jews who ever lived was the spiritual head of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the famed Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.  The Talmud (Brachos 17a) relates that no one ever greeted him first, as he was always the first to offer greetings, “even [to] a non-Jew in the marketplace.”

Now there’s an unusual – unnecessary, to be sure, but clearly laudatory – conduct worth considering these days, when civility seems on the wane. Obviously one can’t walk through a busy pedestrian area greeting every person one sees.  In any event, doing so might not endear one to those serially accosted.

But there are many times when one finds oneself in the presence of another individual or two when the option of a “good morning” or “good evening” hovers in the air, easily ignored but entirely available.

Taking the opportunity to convey the wish, the Talmud teaches us, is something praiseworthy.

And for Jews, the more “Jewish” one looks, I think, the more desirable it is to consider taking on the chumra of emulating Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.  Because in addition to the inherent goodness of acknowledging another human being, there is the unfortunate fact that some people, for whatever reason, are quick to think of Jews, especially Orthodox ones, as “stand-offish.”  And our insular lifestyles, even though they are not intended to insult anyone, can inadvertently reinforce that impression. But it’s hard to maintain a bias against Orthodox Jews when one’s head holds the image, too, of a smiling such Jew offering a greeting.

On a fifteen-minute walk to shul a few Shabbosos ago, I met: two other shul-goers, a Muslim family, and a young man of indeterminate ethnicity.  I also passed a fellow washing his car.  I wished the identifiable Jews a “good Shabbos” (actually, one of them a “Shabbat Shalom”) and offered the others a smile and a “good morning.”  All the greetees returned the good wishes, as did a large man with dreadlocks standing in line with me at the kosher Dunkin Donuts a day later.  That’s usually the case.  Rarely does someone greeted ignore the greeting; and when he does, it’s usually because he didn’t hear it (or couldn’t believe his ears).

Whether my “stringent” behavior made the world any more civil a place I don’t know, but all any of us can do is our own small part.

Some religious Jews, who – rightfully – value modesty and reticence, may feel that it’s somehow not proper to engage strangers in public places.  And in some cases that may well be true.  But in many, even most, cases, it’s certainly not.

At least it wasn’t in Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s eyes.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran


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